Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory

Bill Garner

"This is a slightly edited version of a transcript by Tim Robertson of a rambling interview with Bill Garner recorded by Tim during research for his book, The Pram Factory."B.G

Carol Porter. I met her at la Mama when she was in Tribe. I was well disposed towards Tribe. I liked the people and had quite a bit to do with them especially later when they joined the Pram Factory I sustained that connection. Doug Anders. I hitchhiked to Queensland with Alice when she was five. We were going to visit Lou Costello. At Maleny I found Doug Anders in a converted milking shed, beautiful country, and we went out each morning stark naked with a hoe. We stayed there for a while. Later I heard he was growing herbs or nuts. He did a production of the Hills Family Show. He did my role of Sandringham and he had to get the secret of the mind reading act. You couldn’t tell people round the PF. We (Tony Taylor and I) tested it in the kitchen, our first demonstration on the tower people and we knew it worked.

I didn’t know the Monash people, Lindzee and Jono and Romo, until they turned up to the la Mama workshops on Sunday mornings. Lindzee had an old green Vanguard panel van, a rare vehicle and they travelled in that, they had motorbikes too which set them apart. I had a little old Fiat. They had a much tougher, clearer political line, they were actually communists, frontline troops, we were sort of fellow travellers tending to anarchism, I think I picked that up out at Monash. I was a teacher in the Politics Department. Given my attitude, I came to recognise that (anarchist) as the most appropriate label: it was attractively utopian and absurdly impractical although at the level we were working at in the PF it was quite practical. At Monash I was paid to do some ‘displaced theatre’, theatre in doors and queues, escalators, ten guerrilla performers on the escalators in rush hour, we all dropped dead and people clambered straight over our bodies to get to their lecture on time. We did bank queue theatre in rush hour, we’d form a false queue next to the real queue, thirty people long, when you got to the end you got turned away to nowhere. In the Coffee Lounge we set ourselves up with a sign: ‘Any question answered for twenty cents.’ Three days later there was a huge circle of people and a huge pile of money! Other people had set up ‘any question answered for ten cents’ but they had no one. We had the entire resources of the university at our disposal, any academic questions were answered and then personal questions, which you’d answer frankly and they’d be drawn in. Then we’d get someone to say, ‘why should I be the person paying you the twenty cents?’ and we’d say ‘you can come round this side of the table if you want to’ so they did. Then we put up a sign next to a pile of money saying ‘Free Money’. People couldn’t believe it. They see this sign saying ‘free money’ and they’d veer away from it.

I was in a state of marital estrangement, living at Cockatoo in Lyn Van Hek’s place. I was house sitting for her. Two days after I’d arrived she returned with the four kids and I refused to leave as I had nowhere to live and I had this agreement. We got on quite well but she wouldn’t let me sleep anywhere. ‘I’m not having any of this Carlton-room-of-your own, my house turned into a boarding house where you’re a lodger.’ I’d be told which bed I was to sleep in that night and if I was particularly well-favoured it could be hers or she’d throw all the mattresses on the floor and say ‘we’re all sleeping on the floor tonight’.

Helen and I were living in Kerr St. Twenty one dollars a week - to defray the vast expense we took in lodgers who paid seven dollars a week. We were there for two years or so. I was a part time tutor at Melbourne University in Philosophy. I wasn’t particularly interested in theatre. I was at Monash ‘70-‘72 which was after the Carlton period. I start in Carlton, leave, go to Monash, then come back. MU ‘63-’66. Overseas, met Helen Ford, had known her socially in Melbourne, got back in ’68, started doing my MA. la Mama had just got underway. Blundell and Kerry Dwyer, an old friend of mine, Alan Finney and Brian Davies. Blundell had always encouraged me to acting so I was invited to go along to the first workshop. We didn’t have the term ‘workshop’ we didn’t know what it was, All those group things didn’t have any terminology. TDR was studied, we’d read it assiduously and do it as best we could. I really enjoyed the workshops, they weren’t essentially theatrical for the purpose wasn’t to do plays. But others, like Blundell, were intent on directing these energies to some sort of theatrical production. It never occurred to me to be in the theatre. I found out that I was an actor and at that time it was the thing that I was best at and the thing that I enjoyed most and that I was physically very agile. I was then about 23-24 and that was most enjoyable and there was also this intellectual and political aspect (going to the moratoriums etc) and when the Monash push arrived it was raised much higher. We were opposed to conscription but not quite sure about the NLF.

In the early sixties students didn’t penetrate very far into Carlton. There was Genevieve, they didn’t drink in Carlton, they drank in Parkville. It wasn’t really fashionable. People didn’t spend a lot of time in Carlton, it was very run down, the housing commission was tearing down slums and putting up high-rise flats and even the migrants were abandoning it. La Mama itself was crucial to the changes in the social patterns that happened to Carlton. The Albion became the pub where we started to drink a bit.

The PF building. I think Blundell found it or someone, It was abandoned as a storehouse for Melb. University. The Tower was lived in in the mid 60’s- Winsome Howell and Penny Brown and Sue Ingleton, it was considered to be very chic, they were very top notch in university society. I remember Rod Parker lived there. The front theatre was full of shelving, it was chockablock. I just remember tearing all that stuff down and painting the walls and sanding the floor. There was the interim period where we worked out of the Vic. Ballet Foundation building in Barry St. We used that space there for a year where we worked up Marvellous Melbourne. When we came back from Perth we didn’t go back to la Mama. I did Marvellous Melbourne and then left and went to Monash for 3 years and in that period the Collective got established and it was much more highly organised.

The time that I came back was the time the Adelaide people came in. Tim Robertson and a band. There was a battle for control. Blundell, historically the controlling force, was being outed by the formal structure. The formal structure meant the power was distributed in a different way, there were elections and committees. I don’t really know what the alliances were. Max was allied with the Hannans. Timlin had a broad brush.

In ‘71 the tower was occupied by whoever and I became aware that the lease was coming up and I persuaded Timlin to get the lease and I moved into the Tower alone. I was the first person in there and it was a huge space, it was a mansion in fact. I occupied the small room at the top of the stairs, it had nice northern light and it wasn’t under threat because it was so small. Peter Dyke moved in. My attitude was, here was this huge space and anyone could come and live there, there was an open door policy you could come there in the middle of the night - anyone could come in. The door was always open. We got up to thirteen or fourteen people there eventually. Lindzee came there fairly early. Jono and Ted Heald. Bob Daly then Jane Clifton, she took a big room because she had all those shoes. Isabel Rosemberg and Eddie Van Rosendael, they were married, but she was my girlfriend and I said why don’t you move into the Tower, I didn’t realise she was going to bring Eddie with her, but that was it - if you took Isabel you got Eddie as well. Eddie got the big room. Then Bayne Laurie came and opened up the spaces out the back. Then Robin and Jono were in the little rooms behind the kitchen. A tiny little kitchen which could fit hundreds of people. And Lindzee was up in the tower itself on the platform and Carol with him and the bathroom was up in the tower and you had to go up this long flight of stairs to get there. Living where you worked, it was the perfect building. It had these great spaces. The actual tower with the sleeping platform halfway up and then you could get up on the roof of the tower which was magnificent. I remember watching the full eclipse of the sun. The whole day went black and people let off fireworks in the middle of the day. And opposite of course was the police station. You remember those war stories when you were in the French resistance the safest place was on top of the Gestapo?

We had very little trouble from the police apart from one horrendous occasion when we had an all-in brawl in the theatre. Some fundraiser we were having there. A drunken cop came in and we threw him out for being drunk and he came back with two carloads of drunken cops and they came charging up the stairs and attempted to arrest us all but they were so pissed they could hardly stand up. Nothing ever came of it. Our behaviour could have been mildly criminal but theirs was absolutely scandalous. They generally left us alone, even though there was revolution and drug taking and everything that was anti-social going on. Of course we were witnesses to their vile, drunken Xmas parties in the Magistrates Court, that far exceeded anything we’d ever done. That was the famous court of the obscenity charges. Jack Lazarus, a leading barrister at the time appeared for Rivka Hartman and got her off and the rest of the case collapsed. The actors and audience were arrested the audience were marching down the street chanting. I was, at the time, the treasurer of the Civil Liberties Council of Victoria. I went in there as a representative of the audience and was monitoring the police response. They were calling on reinforcements from Russell Street. It was the sense of a siege. The audience outside, chanting. There’d been a big crowd at the show and the drinkers in the Albion had been hauled out as well. We were engaged in a struggle with authority and it played out in this parochial way. You were arrested by the local police and tried in the local court.

Carol Porter lived out in the electric-less place across the patio. Domestic Contradictions in the Tower. In the early stages as it was filling up it wasn’t complex but once it was full of people the basic facilities became overstrained. The kitchen just tended to break down, nothing would be cleaned. We tried to manage that but in the end we realised that the reason that we were living there was to totally commit ourselves to a life of theatrical indulgence, we weren’t living there to keep a tidy kitchen. So the rule basically was that domestic work would take the lowest priority and that we would just cop the consequences. It would get so bad sometimes that it couldn’t function and then we’d abandon it for a few days until a couple of people would take it on themselves and empty the sink and get it going again. The walls were full of the most fascinating murals by Bob Daly and Carol Porter and posters and messages, it was little museum. The bathroom had a mural too. Some one spray painted the hallway ‘free the walls’. We thought that was PC. Initially it might have been blokish but for most of the time it had a full complement but there were Robin Laurie, Jan Cornall, Ruth Maddison, Isabel Rosenberg. It wasn’t a good place to get ill. People could be seriously ill in their room and no one would know. You never went into other people’s rooms unless you were sleeping with them. And because people’s sex lives and personal lives were complex if they went into their room you’d assume they were fucking and so you left them alone and this could be any time of the day, and of course because the tower was there, because it had these beds and so on you’d get other people coming in to fuck and it wasn’t unusual to come back and find someone fucking in your bed- people would meet in the building and they would sneak away to the Tower. I can remember fucking in the stairwell and there was a mattress down there where the little box office was. I can remember fucking on top of the set of ‘Floating World’, and on the bed on the set of ‘BedFellows’, that was very useful there was bed on the set! I’m sure I was not the only person who took advantage of the nooks and crannies of the building in that way. There was always a sort of foetid sexual atmosphere from la Mama onwards. The theatre is a sexy sort of place anyway from the actual physical intimacy, if that was pushed even further, the celebration of the body and physical contact, the group gropes, it was therapeutic and it was theatrical and people would see actors writhing at very close range - relating in a way they’d never seen before and it extended it to the audience.

It was a social centre as well which extended to the pubs and the Tower itself which was like an open door hostel for the homeless. All sorts of people passed through. We had extremely low standards. It’s hard to imagine a human being so abject as to be denied admission. Now and again people had to be expelled because they did manage to exceed the limits of our tolerance... Hollywood Dave, who was one of my favourites, was putting the hard word on the women - this would be where one of the lines was drawn- if the women complained that someone was giving them a hard time they would be expelled -from Paradise as it were. There were some who became problems, like Michael Byrnes, who lived there for quite a while. He was always trying to get himself put back in gaol. If we thought we were drinkers we just didn’t know what a real alcoholic was until we saw him. I never saw him taking any solid food. Alcohol, particularly sherry must have a lot of food value in it. I’ve seen him choke over a thin chicken soup, he just couldn’t take it yet I’ve seen him take a full bottle of sherry before breakfast. He had no ability to look after himself at all. There were parties and the life story program- where we told the stories of our lives and people would come in and listen. I had my thirtieth birthday party on the patio on a Saturday afternoon, there must have been about sixty people there. I drew a line and said, all those people over thirty come over to my side and there must have only been about four crossed. After the pub closed they’d all come to the tower for a joint or another drink. Once the Collective got organised we’d have food in the meetings, a lot of food came out of the tower kitchen for that.

The rent was a fairly small amount and if you divided it up amongst the people there it came to about three dollars a week each and so collecting that sort of money from someone was impossible if not futile. So the rent wouldn’t be collected. The Tower people were not necessarily members of the Collective. They were regarded as the wilder people whereas the Collective were more responsible. The hole went through the wall and that ended the lifestyle.

The Albion was from ‘68 onwards but the height was ‘72-‘75. It was the Tony Bilson period and the food was terrific and if you went there every night you would see everyone you ever knew. It was a great sex supermarket. If people came there they knew what its reputation was. It was in fact our lounge room. There were no bands and you could talk and talking leads to sex. The Albion died with the Labour Govt, it was a party which started in the Albion and it went on for three years.

Children around the PF were tolerated much more so than other places in the community and they had rights. The children had enough personal strength and not only during shows but in rehearsal you could claim the right to walk out of a rehearsal to pick up your child, The kids had access to the place, they could be brought to dances and they fall asleep on the floor or be put to sleep in the tower. There were quite a lot of kids but not everyone had them. The relations between men and women in general were intense, sure there was frenzied sexual activity but it was also a time of profound division between men and women. The Carlton women’s movement was very powerful and extremely well organised with their Consciousness Raising groups and the women were very intimately involved with the daily lives and perhaps we were all somewhat paranoid. People who could deal with it by embracing it or rejecting it but whatever it was it had a profound impact and they were in a position to raise the responsibility of children and that made it easier for men to claim they had that responsibility. You were not allowed to use a meeting or a rehearsal or a show as an excuse for not looking after the child.

Homosexuality. Going back earlier. At la Mama there was a view that mainstream theatre had been ‘poofterised’. All the excessive heterosexuality, the muscle building, was seen as a counter to the mainstream theatre. It took years for that side of the PF group to slowly emerge and it was led by the women’s movement. They made the beachhead and that allowed the gay men to emerge, the ideology of the time was that everybody’s homosexual it’s just that heterosexuals denied that part of themselves. There’d be two men and a woman in bed together as a covert way of having homosexual contact. I embraced it more ideologically than I did personally. If you had strong inclination to be gay then the circumstances were right for it happen. The women’s movement was very pro gay and in a sense some of them used to put about that they preferred gay men and if you wanted a root you almost had to be bisexual and indeed I had several affairs with women who may have at one stage been lesbians. I would go to visit a lesbian separatist household in George St. Fitzroy. It seemed quite possible to be both a lesbian and a heterosexual and so it was assumed the same thing would be possible for men. Others found this absolutely threatening.

Other Houses. Falconer St. house: Helen was there and Alice, the Monkey Grip house. Rose Costello, Peter Lillee for a while, Phillip Fraser. Hawkes was editor of ‘Revolution’ and they were in a house down the city end of Drummond St. Bob Daly did cartoon work for ‘Digger’, Ponch was photographer. Rathdowne St. house which became the Circus Oz house. Ponch was there and Carol. Music houses in Bell St. Red Symons was there. Junkie houses which always seemed bare. Then there was the Men’s house in Canning St. nothing but mattresses on the floor and no food. Lasted about three months. Tim and me and Martin Armiger, Peter Lillee, Greig Pickhaver, Dave Stocker .

People from the outside tended to think of the PF as this communists’ collective where everyone thinks alike. The experience was absolutely the opposite. It was this whirlpool where different currents came into it all the time affecting what came out - there was only ever unity in the face of large external threat. There wasn’t one theatre, there were different groups within the group, front theatre, back theatre, basement, all with different shows. Front Theatre usually mainstream audience, Back Theatre more experimental, Basement music.

The community theatre: money show, Spondoolicks, didn’t work, it was patronising. We did a lot of factory tours which became regular. The best were Mr Big the Big Pig and Dr Karls Kure. The street theatre in the moratoriums was heady stuff, it was exciting, by god, it was exciting to be right up there in front of one hundred thousand people and dancing your way down the road, watching the police and the army thugs dissolve in front because the of seamen and wharfies who were this guard behind you. We developed these techniques for working in big crowds, this corkscrew thing, where we’d run indian file into the crowd and we’d turn in like a corkscrew and create a circular space and sit down and do these two minute routines, ten groups of five people. You had about five scripts and you’d repeat them. Now and then the actors would get kicked but the crowd would descend on the attackers. We rehearsed in the Carlton Gardens for that. Martin Phelan taught us tumbling. We’d haul mattresses out of Blundell’s house opposite the park and practice.

I liked to do the odd Phil Motherwell piece but also I liked to do a hit, that got a big crowd in but I’d liked the possibility of being quite eclectic. Towards the end, all the combinations and permutations had been exhausted. The capacity for generating something new was fading although towards the end the Hills Family Show was a great success and it was a new creation. The panel beaters moved out. I moved out of the tower about ‘78 and that for me was pretty necessary. I felt I had to go somewhere else so I moved into a collective house in Delbridge St. Nth. Fitzroy. Isabel had been living there and I took over her room when she went to France. It was a left-wing house, much more private and then in ‘79 I went off to America with Sue Gore and the new baby, Max but before that I’d been part of that process that something’s got to go!

The whole thing had to go - was disintegrating and what were we going to do, just walk away from it? Then the idea came of giving it to someone, giving it to this other group in the end! The fact that in the end it wasn’t possible to transfer it tells us something about the nature of the thing itself which was although we thought we’d created this structure which was transferable to any group of people it turns out it wasn’t, it turns out that it was somehow intimately bound up with the actual people who made it up over that period of time, who were part of it. In the end the thing that always strikes me, on looking back on the formative years was how powerful the personalities were that were drawn together and they weren’t drawn together because they wanted to be in theatre as such but they wanted to be at the centre, at the hottest spot, and nearly all of them had been highly successful in some other sphere, people who already had a lot of self-confidence, and it was also possible for people to emerge who came in in quite lowly positions and fight their way onto the stage; Ursula Harrison who came in to clean the toilets and ended up on the stage; there were photographers who got established there, Ruth Maddison. It was an extraordinary belief that if you wanted to do something you just did it. Given that so many people were drawn to it not having so much theatrical ambitions but they ended up making a living out of it.

Looking back even though there was a strong collective ethos and a dampener on establishing personal reputations and stardom, there were those who kept their eye on a certain ball and it was their ball. There are those who say of a communal organization that it belongs to everybody and therefore to nobody. My own attitude was that it belongs to everybody and everybody owns it and it is mine, it is mine to do what I want with, it is my money, my building, if I wanted to do something I will not hesitate to do it. I wanted to get into radio, at 3CR, I didn’t feel that I had to beg anyone’s pardon for this it was something I could announce. If people wanted to do a certain form of theatre they just did it. The women did it. Empowerment through control. The skill and the will. If you weren’t any good at it you didn’t get a guernsey, not everyone was able to make it work to their advantage.

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